Teamwork and Constructive Tension

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Behind every well-executed charitable or civic-minded mission froths a simmering cauldron of a team whose members wrestle between themselves with how to deliver the most good to the most people, most efficiently and most effectively. The picture of team interaction seldom competes for good looks. In fact, effective teams often display a chaotic mass of thoughts and concepts, wrong turns, strained interpersonal relations, compromised ideals, and bungled assignments. They are made up of humans, none of whom are exempt from natural frailties that we all possess. These include limited intelligence, emotional sensitivity, tendencies to periodic indiscretion, stubbornness or inflexibility, and less than fully diplomatic interpersonal acumen.

But somehow, groups of individuals pulled together by a common desire to achieve an organizational good, sometimes manage to pull off a minor miracle. They figure out how to complement their individual strengths, mitigate or compensate for individual weaknesses, sacrifice their personal preferences, and submit to the crazy idea that by pulling together, they might be able to achieve a goal that individually, none of them could possibly hope to accomplish. They work as a team.

Boards as Teams

Every board of directors makes up a team. Some execute well whereas others function absolutely horribly. The vast majority operates with mediocrity, at best.

Typically, board members bind themselves together with a passion for accomplishing a particular mission, each considering it sacred, and their participation important to its achievement. They often seek each other out for the complementary skills that each can bring to the table. By virtue of his involvement, each member extends himself beyond the comfortable routine of personal and professional existence in order to accomplish something good.

Although each board member generally cares deeply about the mission that he serves, each serves from his own frame of reference, steeped in uniquely established emotion, and unequally trained or experienced in how to efficiently and effectively participate in group decision-making.

Several components work together to create a good team. Complementary and appropriate skills comprise ingredients to a competent and balanced team. Teamwork and a willingness to contribute to team play are also part of the recipe. Team competitiveness requires a complement of competitive players.

There is another requirement for a good team that often goes unstated. Constructive tension constitutes a critical ingredient to healthy and productive board function. It serves to provide balance and spurs the board to aggressively achieve objectives that could not be achieved with a comfortable board.

Constructive Tension and Conflict

An appropriate balance of tension tends to create a board that challenges itself and its members to a higher level of performance. It creates a restlessness in those who would otherwise perform lazily. It promotes purpose to those who would otherwise offer comments and critiques with only minimal pre-thought. It fosters efficiency in place of divisiveness. And, it encourages healthy debate among all board members and a universal feeling of worthiness in participation, rather than feelings of power by its very exercise.

Runde and Flanagan ( “Building conflict Competent Teams”, 2007) describe two types of conflict. First, “task conflict” focuses on the substantive tasks that form the basis for a team’s existence. It is issue oriented and emanates from natural differences of opinions and issues. In teams, it is associated with robust debate of issues, heightened creativity that comes from exploring and vetting options, and improved decision making. This type of conflict, when managed well, improves the performance of teams.

Another type of conflict hinges on personalities and emotions. “Relationship conflict” often focuses its attention on trying to find someone to blame for a problem rather than figuring out how to solve it. It arises when team members become angry or frustrated with one another and begin to see each other as the problem. Mistrust and dissension escalate, causing team cohesion to weaken. Relationship conflict easily emerges when team members hold different values. But simple personality differences will trigger negative emotions that can also lead to relationship conflict.

Conflict can start as healthy and transform into something very unhealthy. This occurs when task conflict transitions into relationship conflict. When competitive nature turns into emotional antipathy, it loses its value and makes teamwork difficult, inefficient and ultimately ineffective.

Emotional intelligence (Runde and Flanagan, p 39) relates to a person’s ability to keep a level head and put a check on emotional reactions. Emotional intelligence results from experience, but its maturity is strengthened through training and forethought. When a person is reminded of the potential for emotional conflict, he naturally stiffens his resolve to avoid it, thus keeping his response to conflicting ideas professional and intellectual.

Passion and Discipline

Governance involves deciding how best to govern an organization. Healthy board process results from the achievement of balance in debate and discussion. Conflict and tension are a necessary part of arriving at good decisions, but must be structured and mediated in a way that promotes wide participation and critical thought.

Nevertheless, it would be naive to suggest that all issues could be settled without strong feelings about what the ultimate decisions should be. When the concepts of task and relationship conflict are discussed, they are described as relating to intellectual debate and personal attribution. Therefore, task to relationship conflict can seem like a clearly defined transition between intellectual differences to personal confrontation. If a board simply avoids personal attacks, and balances its intellectual consideration, then healthy board function results.

However, the real world does not work as cleanly as this. The fact is, people develop strong feelings (not just intellectual opinions) about what results should occur.

As emotional attachment to an alternative point of view develops, the board member winds up wanting various issues to pass or fail. In other words, board members care. Since their participation on the board in the first place results from their caring about the mission of the organization, their caring about specific issues assumes greater significance. They no longer root for the winner of an athletic contest whose result seldom if ever makes a significant difference; they root for the adoption of an approach to helping fulfill a mission that has already captured their heart and energy. They tend to develop emotional attachments to positions.

When people care about outcomes that they can control or effect, they put emotional energy into determining the outcome. They will argue from an intellectual point of view. But they will evoke passion as a result of their caring.

Passion is an essential part of board membership. It lies at the core of each board member’s participation. Although members might not care about each and every issue that comes before the board, members will inevitably care about those they consider crucial to the organization’s well-being and overall success. Passion is good. Passion roots itself in emotion and propels a person’s energy to beneficial purpose.

Emotion also forms a potential quagmire of conflicted thought and sensitive feelings. It can trigger internally violent reactions to perceived threats and assaults. It can destroy a person’s ability to reasonably compromise or to see the other side of an issue. It can also yield one person unable to effectively work with another who represents a perceived personal affront to the first person’s values or ideals. As a result, in order for board members to be effective in their governance roles, each must develop a self-discipline that grows out of emotional intelligence. They must learn and appreciate their “hot buttons” in advance of their being triggered. Self-awareness can then lead a person to train himself to keep his cool under perceived negative personal inferences and more beneficially contribute to intelligent debate that supersedes emotional trauma.

Understanding How the Game is Played

Achieving emotional intelligence requires an understanding steeped in experience. Experience is an essential teacher of all wise persons. But experience can be inefficient and sometimes altogether inadequate. Experience usually requires honing. Training, coaching and reminding provide the appropriate tools to accomplish this.

Experience often bears the scars of prior emotional trauma. Experience teaches its students that emotional tension inevitably occurs. It prepares intelligent and reasonable persons to anticipate, respond to, and weather it. However, the techniques learned through experience are not uniform. First of all, solutions to emotional tolerance typically lie in the fight or flight phenomenon. Those whose learned responses involve a fighter’s attitude may demonstrate emotional techniques that tend to overwhelm those whose techniques involve flight. They may also trigger hot buttons of others. They will often result in aggressive behavior intended to “win” the battle of ideas and influence.

Those whose learned responses involve flight from conflict will normally demonstrate emotional techniques that tend to shy away from confrontation. Therefore, in spite of potentially good ideas and analysis, their thoughts will not normally prevail. They will generally demonstrate passive behavior, tending to avoid conflict as well as the feeling of “loss”.

When board members are trained and educated in conflict management, emotional intelligence will generally increase. Even though aggressive and passive tendencies might persist, training supplemented by reminders of how intellectual interaction should occur within board deliberations should normally help balance the influence of board members so that a more reasoned decision process might ensue. Furthermore, with appropriate board leadership, the feelings of losing an argument or debate could recede to the point where all expressions of thought are regarded as helpful and constructive to a balanced decision process.

Suggested Rules for Board Participation

In addition to coaching, training or encouraging, a board might consider establishing appropriate rules or parameters of issue consideration. First, consider identifying routinely identifying agenda issues to which universal board member participation would be desirable. This could be indicated on each meeting’s agenda. Second, consider requiring each board member to comment at least once on significant issues.

In addition to thoughtful participation, other modes might also be considered. Most significant issues should require discussion of alternative points of view. Prior to each meeting, consider assigning an advocacy and opposing (devil’s advocate) view responsibility to two different members. Ask each to prepare arguments in support and in opposition to the issue. Not only would this ensure that both sides’ issues would be considered, but it would also force at least two members to seriously consider issue merits and demerits prior to their debate.

Roberts Rules of Order Newly Revised contain rules for debate (RONR 10th ed., p. 375-77). They say;
“You may speak in debate twice on any debatable motion on the same day. Each time. you may speak for up to ten minutes. These limits apply to any organization that has not adopted special rules setting other limits, as many do.”

Although the length of time for one person’s single commentary on any single issue might be limited to something other than ten minutes, this rule seems to have merit in ensuring that adequate and equitable participation in debate takes place. In addition, a board might also consider limiting initial propositions and contrary arguments to two presentations, a second round of rebuttals and/or commentary might also be requested of all board members, or simply of the two presenters. If rebuttals are limited to the presenters, then rebuttals might be followed by a question and answer period, again with each questioner and answer provider limited by a fixed time limit.

Consider having each board member write a written critique, perhaps with a checklist and comments, on every other board member’s verbal participation. Also consider accumulating critiques and using them to annually evaluate each board member’s participation throughout the year, both in terms of level of participation and in terms of intellectual thought and value.

Board members, given the significance of their responsibility, should not shy away from evaluation. Rather, board member performance evaluation should form a cornerstone for ensuring the value of each member’s contribution toward effective participation and decision making.

Effectively, the above suggestions reflect a conviction that a healthy tension should be maintained within boards of directors. Care should be taken to not only ensure that appropriate tension exists, but also that tension is not transformed into relationship conflict (unhealthy tension). Board process should be structured in order to accomplish these suggestions. One might surmise that these rules are not necessary or that they “go overboard” in their pursuit of the right process. But the same could be said of all rules of order. Experience shows that unstructured meetings, even among highly sophisticated professionals, can easily dissolve into dysfunctional assemblages. Establishing appropriate structure before inevitable problems arise will not only help ensure balanced process, but will also help to ensure that decisions are arrived at through the conduct of intentional debate and balanced thought.

* * * * *

In summary, several rules for how the game (board process) should be played follows. Consider the following:
1. Encourage and structure member participation and debate.
2. Encourage all members to challenge ideas, even when the original idea or proposition seems rather straight forward and reasonable.
3. Make clear the “politics” for challenging and positioning propositions.
4. Establish, teach and periodically review rules for dealing with relationship tension.
5. Teach and periodically review the natural emotional tendencies toward “fight or flight” reactions, in order to increase emotional intelligence.
a. Rule as “out-of-order” excessive fight reactions.
b. Rule as “out-of-order” excessive flight reactions.
c. When reconciliation of ideas, principles or values cannot be achieved between board members, appropriate resolutions should be identified, including the possible exodus of one or more members from the board.
i. When such issues are not resolved, amplify and articulate inalterable positions that do not win majority board support.
ii. Honor such positions as having contributed to overall board knowledge and appreciation of the issue(s) in dispute.
iii. Honor the member(s) holding the irreconcilable dissenting points of view.
iv. Credit the issue and member’s articulation of it as having contributed to worthwhile debate, board awareness and board sensitivity.

John R Haeck, CPA
Governance Consultant
JR Haeck Professional Corporation
Lakewood, CO

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